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From experience and from this video, it seems that you do a glottal stop in the following cases:

  1. Before a word beginning with a vowel (e.g. ein, essen)
  2. Before first vowel in words with prefixes (separable and inseparable) where first letter after prefix is a vowel (e.g. bearbeiten, but not bewahren)

I have a few related questions about these:

  1. Are the above patterns correct?
  2. Are there any other patterns that result in a glottal stop?
  3. Are there any exceptions to any glottal stop pattern?
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up vote 7 down vote accepted

Taken literally, your second rule (glottal stop before first vowel …) would produce something like bʔearbeiten, but that’s probably not what you mean.

I’d prefer to describe it this way: A glottal stop is used whenever a word would otherwise start with a vowel, such as ʔarbeiten, ʔauf, ʔessen; and it is retained in such words even when the vowel is no longer at the beginning, due to prefixation or composition: beʔarbeiten, ʔaufʔessen, Sonnenʔaufgang. A word with several parts can have many glottal stops: Wiederʔaufʔerstehung, ʔErʔörterungsʔaufsatz, Vorʔabʔanʔerkenntnis.

A glottal stop is sometimes used within a (non-composed) word to separate two adjacent vowels, when enunciating or as a personal quirk: e.g. soziʔal. This is not standard pronunciation.

I hope this answers your first two questions. Regarding exceptions, your third question:

  • In some cases, e.g. herauf, the constituent parts are no longer perceived as separate, and are pronounced without a glottal stop.

  • There are regional differences as well. Many southern dialects (including, but not limited to, those in Switzerland) don’t have a glottal stop, and this may cause speakers of these dialects to leave it out (sometimes or in general) even when supposedly speaking standard German.

The glottal stop is never written, except in grammars etc. German speakers without some form of linguistic education are not aware of it; this makes it notoriously difficult to avoid when learning a foreign language.

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sozi-al :D... great you thought of that!! – Emanuel Jul 16 '13 at 14:15

Great question!

There might be some very rare exceptions in the spoken language, in example if you want to pronounce a word very clearly, like:

"Ich werde die Tür aufmachen."
"Ich werde die Tür zumachen."

... then you speak auf / zu a bit louder and make a very small break behind the prefix, but in general, if a vowel follows the prefix, you make a glottal stop, else without stop.

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